Series: Cultural History of the Signature – Part 1

Series: Cultural History of the Signature – Part 1
17 Jul 2019

The signature – its history, its cultural significance and its role in the digital age: enjoy a short cultural-historical excursion around the signature in our four-part series.


Anyone encountering electronic signatures for the first time normally wonders whether the electronic signature is really as valid as a hand-written signature. As this question, sometimes still posed with some trepidation even in the third year following the eIDAS Regulation, suggests: The history of the signature is an important chapter in the history of law. However, there’s a lot more to it: It is no less than a reflection of Europe’s development in an economic and cultural respect. This is what our series on the cultural history of the signature is all about.

In the age of the electronic signature we have the choice: to continue signing analogously or to use digital technology. For larger companies that digitize their correspondence like many other business areas, the qualified electronic signature based on a personal certificate is without alternative. The aura of authenticity and identity through signatures and characters in general, however, won’t change in the long term. Handwritten signatures have that in common with their electronic counterparts. That is why our series shows this above all: signatures have cultural significance – regardless of whether they appear in the form of pixels or ink.

Part 1 – History

Painting of Georg Gisze by Hans Holbein the YoungerThe success story of the signature from the 15th century onward is inseparably linked to the up-and-coming class of merchants in Europe. Merchants more and more turned to the pen – given the increasing number of purchasing and trade agreements, it was a indeed time-saving and pragmatic method of legally binding declarations. They placed their insignia or their full name under contracts using a quill pen.

The turning point from the Middle Ages to modern times is marked by rapidly growing world trade. New markets emerged, and larger distances could be bridged in less and less time. Mobility thus played a key role in the spread of the signature. This can also be seen in art. By the beginning of the “golden age” in European painting, a Europe-wide market for art emerged in the 17th century. As artists no longer necessarily personally knew the buyers of their works, the signature on works of art ultimately prevailed as proof of authenticity and became the standard. Another central key to the dissemination of handwritten signature is education: More and more people learned how to write and were thus even enabled to bear signature with their name.

Thus, the story of the signature chronicles the economization of the world, of education and even of the origins of globalization. The signature spread throughout all areas of life. Not only artists began signing their works as a general rule, states governed their relations by signing agreements, employment contracts were codified, trade agreements sealed. The signature became a world-wide cultural method and a synonym for authenticity, creating the corporate legal basis for all communities.

Up next …

Part 2: Handwriting
Part 3: Types
Part 4: Art